The Ordeal of VF-653
From a Navy Reserve pilot’s letters home, a picture of the darkest days of the Korean War
- By David Sears
- Air & Space magazine, January 2013
(Page 5 of 5)
A July 1952 group photo taken on Valley Forge’s flight deck shows 18 flight-jacketed VF-653 crewmen. Arrayed at their feet are 13 flight helmets, emblazoned with polka dots and smiling clown faces, representing their missing comrades: two severely injured (and evacuated), 11 killed or missing. “A Navy photographer was taking pictures of us that day,” Balser recalls. “When he finished up, I gave him my camera and asked him to take this group shot.”
Back in Ohio and Pennsylvania, 11 families struggled with the losses. Dan Sanko tells me that his mom never fully recovered. She remarried several years later, but later divorced. She died in 1982.
In its April 4, 2005 issue, 53 years after Joe Sanko’s death, Newsweek published a letter from Kathy Sanko Fennell, Joe’s daughter. In response to a March 20 article entitled “Children of the Fallen,” Kathy, a physician’s assistant in Medford, Oregon, wrote: “I was 6 weeks old when he died. We never met. His remains were not recovered…. Throughout my life I often hoped that one day my father would suddenly appear…. There must be a better way to resolve conflicts that is less destructive.”
Dan Sanko grew up wanting to be a military pilot like his dad. “I had a ninth grade science teacher who gave us lessons on basic aviation and aerodynamics,” he tells me. “He had pictures of military aircraft that he asked the class to identify, but he wouldn’t let me even raise my hand. I knew every one of them.”
That year, Dan learned that he would have to wear glasses. “It was devastating,” he says. “I knew it meant the end to any hopes I had of following in my dad’s aviation footsteps.”
Today a health insurance industry business analyst in McKees Rocks, Pennsylvania, Dan Sanko is also an avid amateur aviation photographer who attends as many airshows as he can. When he goes, he especially likes to photograph Corsairs.
David Sears is a former U.S. Navy officer and military historian. His two most recent books, Pacific Air and Such Men as These, portray naval combat aviation during World War II and the Korean War.